Seductive, Reductive, Religulous

In May of 2002, the comic Bill Maher faced the studio audience of his long-running program Politically Incorrect for the first time since learning ABC was canceling the show. As he sometimes did, Maher began the episode of PI—an irreverent roundtable discussion on current affairs—with a short monologue.

Maher was no stranger to provocative comments. He stirred national controversy the previous fall by attributing greater cowardice to US military leadership than 9/11 hijackers. Once the network guillotine had fallen, however, it was as if the real Maher was finally loosed. He gave new meaning to his show’s title as he explained why he thought he’d been fired.

“Folks, let me sum it up for you,” he began. “I think religion is bad and drugs are good. I think America causes cancer, longevity is less important than fun, and young people should be discouraged from voting. I think stereotypes are true, abstinence is a perversion, Bush’s lies are worse than Clinton’s, and there is nothing sexy about being old or pregnant.”

“I think September 11th changed nothing, and if I had known the onset of war would add 100 points to George Bush’s IQ, I would have started one,” he continued. “I think pornography stops rape, I think AIDS ribbons are stupid and flag burning makes me feel patriotic. I think death is not the worst thing that can happen to you, I think people have too much self-esteem, and being drunk is funny.”

He wasn’t finished.

“I think children are not innocent, God doesn’t write books, and Jesus wasn’t a Republican. I am for Mad Cow Disease and against suing tobacco companies. I think girls hate each other, ‘no’ doesn’t always mean ‘no,’ you have to lie to stay married, women’s sports are boring, and the Olympics are gay.”

His virtuosic act of provocation is worth reprinting here, because nothing has so condensed the essence of Maher. He sounded as if he believed every acidic word, and his unblinking delivery suffused the self-aggrandizing rant with both humor and horror. It’s hard to imagine anybody who wouldn’t take some part of it personally.

Real Time
In the years since leaving ABC, Bill Maher’s career has been a continuation of his Politically Incorrect valediction. As an author, commentator, and now host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher (sort of like PI, but with more swear words and fewer B-list celebrities), he has ratcheted up his rhetoric on the topics that raise his hackles: the Bush presidency, political correctness itself, and above all, religious beliefs.

Maher is outspoken in his contempt for all of religion’s manifestations, but he saves a special place in his bile duct for the Catholic Church in which he was raised. Whether it was calling Benedict XVI a Nazi or the clergy the “Bear Stearns of organized pedophilia,” it’s no stretch to suggest Maher has caused more of Bill Donohue’s reflexive, Catholic League umbrage-taking this decade than anybody on earth.

The name of Maher’s latest strident venture into the debate over faith and its role in people’s lives is Religulous. Opening this week, and directed by Larry Charles of Borat and Seinfeld fame, it’s an op-ed in the same vein as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Michael Moore’s Sicko or Ben Stein’s Expelled from earlier this year (an increasingly ubiquitous genre which I’d describe as “man with recognizable face has strong opinion, makes documentary”).

The film begins with Maher standing among the ruins of Meggido in Israel, where the book of Revelations forecasts the End of Days to occur—one of a series of crazy religious sentiments that, Maher says, baffle him to no end. Maher explains his own credo is uncertainty.

“Doubt is my product,” he says. He resolves to understand better what, in contrast, makes believers tick with such superstitious assurance.

Formulaic and Funny
“I have to find out,” Maher says. “I have to try.”

With this, he sets off, and anyone who’s seen a popular documentary in the past seven years can predict how things proceed. Maher will traverse the globe, converse with supportive talking heads, and play “gotcha” with some not-so-supportive ones. He and Charles will splice in some old film clips and rock songs for ironic seasoning. He’ll feign ignorance, or curiosity, and after about ninety minutes, he’ll act as if he’s settled a complicated question.

Religulous follows all of these conventions. Yet, the funny thing about Religulous is that it manages to be funny, and in the process break the mold a time or two. On the whole, this theistic reviewer even managed to enjoy himself.

For all of his bullish contrarianism, Bill Maher has an undeniably keen wit, and for most of Religulous, he puts it to good use. He chuckles his way through tours of places where the sometimes absurd applications of faith are fully bared: the Kentucky Creationism museum, where cavemen gambol alongside animatronic brontosaurs; the Israeli Institute for Science and Halachah, where brilliant scientists spend their time devising Rube Goldberg contraptions to help people circumvent Sabbath laws.